First All-Ireland quarter-final win in five years. First time heading back to Croke Park in five years. Redemption for a Munster final that didn’t go to plan. Visible progress — at long, long last.
That their intended destination was reached early on Saturday evening meant the nature of the journey — a drab encounter in a near-empty stadium — was of absolutely no interest to the hurlers from Clare. Having fallen at this very hurdle in 2016 and 2017, this was a defining game for Gerry O’Connor and Donal Moloney’s charges. More so than was the case for Wexford.
An All-Ireland semi-final appearance was a baseline requirement for the group after contesting, and coming up short, in two successive Munster finals and the aforementioned quarter-finals.
Put simply, this was a step they had to take. Their graph had been stagnant long enough. But take it they did.
The subtle difference between Saturday and their provincial final setback was Clare didn’t fall apart when Wexford got a run on them late in the second half. Having coasted along for most of the second half — they led by eight on 56 minutes — Clare were pulled into a contest just before the hour, when Conor McDonald burst onto a sideline cut and arrowed a low shot past Dónal Tuohy. 0-22 to 1-14.
Podge Collins posted a swift response, but the next seven minutes were owned by Wexford, the Model County invigorated by the decision to abandon the ploy of Liam Óg McGovern operating as an isolated inside forward and the construction of a full-forward line that contained three bodies. Who knew hurling could be so simple?
McGovern almost delivered a second goal, Tuohy equal to the task on this occasion. Corner-back Damien Reck scooped the rebound goalward, David McInerney appearing out of nowhere to prevent the sliotar from crossing the white paint.
Rory O’Connor sniped a pair of points, the second an absolute beauty from play. Four-point game. 0-23 to 1-16. And while Wexford did subsequently cut the margin to three, they were let down by as many wides. Their second-half wide count finished up at 10. Frenetic shooting but few dents on the scoreboard.
“If we managed to score them three points when we got back into it, trust me, I don’t think we would have been beaten,” said Davy Fitzgerald.
“We weren’t the better team. The better team should have probably been up a bit more. When we got the second goal chance and the few point-scoring opportunities, if we had taken them, it could have been an interesting finish. That didn’t happen, though. Clare finished strong.”
That they did. Shane O’Donnell threw over his fourth to end a nine-minute drought. Sub Ian Galvin was next up to the mark. John Conlon, summing up his entire summer in one play, horsed Conor Firman out over the North Stand sideline before splitting the posts from a most acute angle. Another replacement, Conor McGrath, completed the seven-point win.
“There was a lot of pressure on us going into the game,” began John Conlon.
“When Wexford came back at us, we stood up. We said we needed to have a bit of composure in those moments. They are the times when you win championship matches and everyone that came in did the business.
“When you look back at the second half of the Munster final, I know people said we blew up, but it was more about composure. We didn’t win the moments we had to win, we didn’t take our opportunities, our frees. That was our own fault. We said today we needed to be more settled in those shots.
“Today, we were not backing down. All our leaders stood up and scored massive points. Tony [Kelly] had an outstanding first half and then other lads thundered into the second half. Podge got a great score. Shane got a great score. Ian came on and got a great score. David Fitzgerald came out with a great ball. They are all the moments where you win games.”
The 29-year-old Clonlara man added: “First time back in Croke Park in five years is massive. As you get older, this is my 10th year on the panel, you want to take those opportunities.”
Aside from the closing act, this wasn’t a quarter-final to get the pulses racing. Then again, there weren’t many pulses present.
The Banner were full value for their 0-16 to 0-9 interval lead. Five of their starting six forwards were on the mark from open play, whereas outside of Rory O’Connor’s five frees, Conor McDonald was the sole member of the Wexford attack to find the target.
Further hindering their bid for a first semi-final since 2007 were Mark Fanning’s misfiring restarts. Seadna Morey, David Reidy, and Podge Collins punished a string of puck-outs which were drilled straight to men wearing saffron and blue. Paudie Foley and sweeper Shaun Murphy were also guilty of sending aimless deliveries into the paw of spare Clare defender David McInerney.
Clare’s busy approach in the middle sector disrupted their opponents — Wexford midfielders Kevin Foley and Aidan Nolan were first to be shown the curly finger — while Lee Chin was non-existent for the most part.
The Banner not so much march on, but they’re alive and among the last four pilgrims closing in on hurling’s summit. That’s progress.
Scorers for Clare: P Duggan (0-7, 0-5 frees); T Kelly (0-5); S O’Donnell (0-4); J Conlon (0-3); D Reidy, P Collins (0-2); S Morey, C McGrath, I Galvin C Malone (0-1 each).
Scorers for Wexford: R O’Connor (0-10, 0-9 frees); C McDonald (1-3); L Chin, D Reck, D O’Keeffe, S Murphy (0-1 each).
CLARE: D Tuohy; J Browne, D McInerney, P O’Connor; J Shanahan, C Cleary, S Morey; C Galvin, C Malone; P Duggan, T Kelly, D Reidy; P Collins, J Conlon, S O’Donnell.
Subs: D Fitzgerald for C Galvin (57); I Galvin for Reidy (59); C McGrath for Duggan (67); M O’Malley for Malone (72); R Hayes for Browne (73).
WEXFORD: M Fanning; D Reck, L Ryan, C Firman; D O’Keeffe, P Foley, M O’Hanlon; K Foley, S Murphy; D Dunne, L Chin, C McDonald; L Óg McGovern, A Nolan, R O’Connor.
Subs: J O’Connor for Nolan (49); H Kehoe for Foley (57); S Donohoe for Foley (61); W Devereux for O’Keeffe (66).
Referee: F Horgan (Tipperary).